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Practical Sustainability: Reduce Your Impact from Plastic Bags and Films

I’m upping my recycling game in 2017.  My new year’s resolution was to divert more of our home’s waste stream and, as January draws to a close, I’m happy to say our household is off to a good start!  How are we doing it?  For starters, we have changed our use and disposal habits for plastic bags, wrap and film.

Most of us have heard of the garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean and are aware of the devastating impact of plastics on marine life.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), plastics that make their way into the oceans “do not mineralize (or go away) in the oceans and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces,” where they can be ingested by fish and other marine wildlife and cause “irritation or damage to the digestive system…and this could lead to malnutrition or starvation” of the animals that populate our oceans. 

In a November 2016 article, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that “worldwide, as many as one trillion plastic bags are used each year and less than 5 percent of plastic is recycled.”  Beyond the obvious pollution impact of plastics, plastic bag manufacturing is heavily reliant on fossil fuels.  The EPA points out that “in the United States, we use over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create.”

On the bright side, we CAN recycle plastic bags, and manufacturers use them to create plastic lumber for furniture and decking, playground equipment and even new (recycled and recyclable) plastic bags.  And by changing some of our habits, we can reduce our use of plastic film in the first place. 

So how do we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and environmental impact from these products?  Follow these simple tips for use and disposal of plastic bags and film…

  1. Carry your own reusable bags to the grocery store or ask that your groceries be packed in paper bags instead of plastic.  If you have spare grocery store bags at home, take them with you and reuse them on multiple shopping trips.  While some municipalities have enacted bans on single use plastic bags, a recent backlash against “ban the bag” laws is making is harder for lawmakers to legislate away our plastic bag habit – so it falls on us as individuals to make the environmentally friendly choice.
  2. Further reduce your reliance on plastic films by packing leftovers into reusable washable containers rather than covering them with plastic wrap or freezing them in plastic.  In December, I visited a friend whose home was stocked with stackable rectangular glass containers that she used to freeze leftovers.  To keep frozen food from developing freezer burn, choose glass containers that have airtight silicone seals.  Alternatively, consider wrapping freezer items in foil or wax paper instead of plastic.  If you’re going to freeze liquids, make sure to use a Mason jar or other canning jar, and leave plenty of head space for expansion (or your jar may burst – something I recently experienced when freezing homemade chicken broth).   
  3. If you have a pet, opt for biodegradable pet waste bags instead of plastic.  While reusing your newspaper delivery bag or grocery store bag may seem like a good idea, the plastic bag will still end up in a landfill after you pick up your pet waste.  Biodegradable pet waste bags are inexpensive and are a more environmentally conscious choice. 
  4. If plastic bags and films make their way into your home, take them to a collection center near you for recycling.  In the first three weeks of January alone, our family has collected and recycled four large bags of plastic film-based products (grocery store bags, zipper bags, plastic wrap, air pillows used as packing materials, etc.).  Curbside programs typically don’t accept plastic bags and films because their facilities are set up only to handle rigid items.  But grocery and large retail stores often have recycling receptacles where you can leave your grocery store bags, clean food wraps, dry cleaning bags and other flexible plastic films.  Check out to learn which plastic film products are recyclable and to find a collection station near you. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

Plastic bag image courtesy of foto76 at


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Practical Sustainability: Evict the Vampires from Your Home

At this year’s Greenbuild convention, the annual expo and conference for the green building industry, I attended an education session about how to control plug loads in commercial and residential buildings.  One of the session’s speakers described a case study in which a business installed TrickleStar Advanced Power Strips to tackle “vampire” loads that occur when devices that are not in use continue to consume electricity.  In fact, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “Nearly one-quarter of home energy use is consumed by vampires.”

So, when I decided recently to reorganize my home office, I felt it was a perfect opportunity to install a smart power strip to help evict the vampires from my home.  In my home office, I have:

  • A land line telephone.  The phone itself operates without electricity, but needs power to act as a speakerphone
  • A multi-port switch, which enables me to connect a networked printer and computer even though I only have one Ethernet jack in the room
  • A desktop computer with two monitors and external speakers
  • A desk lamp with a 60 watt halogen bulb (shame on me for not replacing the bulb when I did a lighting retrofit a couple of years ago)
Nearly one-quarter of home energy use is consumed by Vampires.
— Natural Resources Defense Council

To be able to quantify the savings, I enlisted the help of TrickleStar and Belkin, each of which provided products for me to test out. 

Belkin Conserve Insight™

Belkin Conserve Insight™

First, I plugged my existing power strip into the Belkin Conserve Insight™ Energy Use Monitor, a device that measures energy consumption, and converts it into an average annual or monthly cost (using an electricity rate that I was able to specify) and a cost in terms of CO2 production.  I monitored the “before” condition for several weeks and learned that my typical consumption was approximately 70 watts without the desk lamp and 125 watts with the lamp turned on.  Using the printer caused the energy consumption to spike even further.  On average, my typical use was costing me $150 and generating over 750 pounds of CO2 annually.  As an aside, the Belkin Conserve Insight has a nifty five-foot cord that connects its LCD screen to the device outlet - which saved me from having to move a file cabinet each time I wanted to check my consumption reading. 

TrickleStar 7-Outlet Tier 1 Advanced PowerStrip

TrickleStar 7-Outlet Tier 1 Advanced PowerStrip

So what happened when I swapped out my old power strip for TrickleStar’s 7-Outlet Tier 1 Advanced PowerStrip (APS) with 1,080 joules of surge protection?  The TrickleStar APS has one “control” outlet into which I plugged my computer, and four switched outlets, into which I plugged my speakerphone, monitors, and external speakers.  Whenever my computer enters sleep mode or is turned off, power is cut off from all of the devices plugged into the switched outlets. 

I left the printer and multi-port switch plugged into two outlets that are “always on” on the TrickleStar APS.  The printer is networked and available to other users in my household, so I didn’t want it to be turned off when my desktop computer went to sleep. 

When I set up the APS, I also realized that I needed to tweak the power management settings on my computer to make it go to sleep.  Simply going through this process made me aware of how poorly I had been managing the electric consumption of my home office equipment. 

My new setup, with the TrickleStar APS helping me save energy

My new setup, with the TrickleStar APS helping me save energy

So how am I doing now?  The Belkin Conserve Insight™ Energy Use Monitor now estimates I’m using approximately $80 annually and generating around 400 pounds of CO2 – a savings of almost half of my previous setup.  With a retail cost of $29.99 for the Belkin monitor and $29.99 for the TrickleStar APS (both of which are available for even less on at the time of this blog’s publication), that’s less than a one-year payback period. 

Could I be doing better?  Probably.  I’m pleased that the TrickleStar Advanced PowerStrip is helping us to control the energy usage of the computer setup, but the two “always on” devices still draw approximately 7 watts of power (when the multi-port switch is on and the printer is in standby mode).  At a cost of $0.24 per kWh (kilowatt hour), these two devices alone cost $14.70 annually.  But until I install a smart outlet that turns itself off overnight when I know nobody in my household is using the printer, I don’t have a better workaround.  Still – this is just 10% of the estimated cost of the entire setup that the Belkin energy monitor had initially measured.  And I haven't yet tackled other parts of my home where I'm sure other vampires are lurking.

NREL has created a useful guide to help you select the right type of advanced power strip for your application. 

Were there any additional benefits of installing a smart power strip?  As an added bonus, I removed a surge protector power strip that was many years old (too old to count!).  Surge protectors don’t last forever.  Each time they experience a surge, their performance degrades and over time they lose their protective capability.  While most experts won’t put an expiration date on a surge protector they do agree that surge protectors should be replaced every few years.  Click here for more about surge protector performance.

So how can you evict the vampires from your home?  Follow these five simple tips:

  1. You can't manage what you can't measure!  Use an energy monitor like the Belkin Conserve Insight™ to know how much energy your devices are drawing, even when they’re idle.  This will help you figure out what areas to target.  The likeliest candidates will be your computer and your TV/gaming console setup.  But look further afield at phone chargers, hair dryers and other appliances that may be drawing phantom power when they aren’t in use.
  2. Unplug!  Consider unplugging appliances and devices that you don’t use frequently.
  3. Use internal power management features like those on your computer to put your devices to sleep when they’re not in use.
  4. Install smart power strips like the TrickleStar Advanced PowerStrip to control the consumption of power by groups of appliances.
  5. Finally, whenever you purchase new appliances, look for ENERGY STAR models that will use the least amount of energy.

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Acoustical Performance: How a Green Medical Office Controls Sound Transmission

Acoustical Performance: How a Green Medical Office Controls Sound Transmission

While sound transmission doesn't typically receive as much attention as aesthetics or energy efficiency during planning of a small project, acoustic performance can make the difference between a productive private space and one whose noise level is distracting or worse. 

Sunset Green Home is working on a sustainable medical office renovation and our physician client wanted consulting rooms where patients would feel comfortable having confidential conversations without concern that their words would be audible outside the room.  And the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) Oral Privacy Directives require healthcare providers to take reasonable precautions to safeguard personal health information.  Consequently, we incorporated acoustical planning into the overall project plan so that conversations won’t be heard from one room to the next.

Acoustical designers use Sound Transmission Class, or STC, to describe how well an acoustical assembly (for example, a wall) attenuates sound.  The Minnesota Sustainable Housing Initiative provides the following chart to help explain the effectiveness of various STC ratings:

STC Rating.png

So what are our strategies for ensuring acoustical performance in the sustainable medical office renovation?

  • Installation of acoustical gasketing around 2 1/4” thick solid MDF doors to reduce sound transmission under or around the door
  • Application of acoustical sealants wherever pipes and electrical conduit penetrate the walls
  • Staggering switches and outlets on opposite sides of walls to different stud cavities
  • Designing background music into the waiting areas
  • Using ductless AC units to eliminate the potential for sounds to be transmitted through HVAC ductwork

But most importantly, we have designed a wall assembly that will deliver a high-50s STC in the private offices.  Our wall assembly, depicted in the image below, includes:

Image courtesy Roxul

Image courtesy Roxul

  • Two layers of GREENGUARD certified 5/8” Gold Bond SoundBreak XP gypsum on one side of the wall and either one or two layers of 5/8” fire-resistant gypsum on the other.  Where gypsum is layered, seams are staggered and acoustical sealant is used between panels
  • 3” of GREENGUARD certified Roxul AFB sound attenuating stone wool batt insulation installed tightly between steel studs
  • Application of acoustical caulk at all seams and joints
  • Extension of the partition wall assembly through the ceiling plenum to reduce sound transmission through the ceilings

Acoustical performance cannot be an afterthought in project planning.  By designing for reduced sound transmission, we are ensuring a comfortable and private space for doctors and patients alike.


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Practical Sustainability: Don't Flush That Medication!

This Saturday, October 22, 2016, is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. 

Held annually throughout the country, National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day provides a safe way to dispose of medications that are no longer needed. 

When you threw out your back last year, perhaps the doctor gave you a prescription for a stronger pain reliever.  Or maybe you found some bottles of unused medications after a relative passed away.  Or your kids have grown up and you don’t need pediatric cough syrup anymore.  There are many reasons why we accumulate unneeded and unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs.  You don’t want them lying around your home, but how do you safely get rid of them?  Whatever you do, don’t flush that medicine!

Why is this a topic for a sustainability blog? 

Discarding unused drugs and personal care products down the toilet is a common but poor disposal method.   Source:

Discarding unused drugs and personal care products down the toilet is a common but poor disposal method.

According to the University of Illinois, “Septic systems and most municipal wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to remove pharmaceutical chemicals from the water.  Different treatment techniques are successful at removing some of the chemicals, but current technology does not completely remove all pharmaceutical chemicals from treated water.  The presence of pharmaceutical chemicals in sewage sludge is also of concern, as it is often used on agricultural land as a fertilizer.” reports that 41 million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of pharmaceutical products in their drinking water.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), “Chemicals are being discovered in water that previously had not been detected or are being detected at levels that may be significantly different than expected.”  USEPA publishes a detailed diagram of how Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) can enter our water supplies.

Scientific research is underway to determine the long term effects of pharmaceutical products in our waterways.  More research needs to be done, and we need more facts about the long term human and environmental impacts of pharmaceutical disposal.  But even before all of the facts are gathered and analyzed, there are things we can do to reduce our impact when we dispose of medications.

According to the US EPA, improper disposal of prescription medications increases the risk that they end up in our rivers, and lakes and potentially into community drinking water supplies.  And wastewater treatment plants aren’t equipped to monitor or treat pharmaceutical compounds.

So, over the next few days, consider cleaning out your medicine cabinet and taking unwanted prescription medications to a drop-off point for safe disposal.  Click here to locate a collection site near you.  And help to keep our water supplies healthy for humans and aquatic life.

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Dispatch from Greenbuild 2016: The Internet of Things

I have just returned from the Greenbuild conference in Los Angeles where one of the recurrent themes – in both the education sessions and on the Expo floor – was the Internet of Things (IoT).  IoT refers to the embedded connectivity of everyday objects, which allows them to collect data and communicate with other networked objects.  Within the built environment, IoT is being used to improve commercial tenant experiences and enhance building operations, while in the residential market IoT enabled products are already making a difference in our busy lives.  Here are a few examples:

The Edge, Amsterdam

The Edge, Amsterdam

1. Lighting

For commercial offices and residential projects alike, connected lighting presents one of the greatest opportunities for energy savings and productivity enhancement.  According to Tech Crunch, “A trifecta of qualities — ubiquity, network connectivity and access to power — make intelligent lights a perfect platform on which the promise of the Internet of Things can start to come to life.”  Indeed, sensors and smart lighting controls already make it possible for lights to respond to individual user preferences for color temperature and brightness, while also facilitating energy efficiency through daylight harvesting and occupancy sensing. 

And the smart lighting market is developing as a platform for enhancing additional functions such as building automation and smart logistics.  Amsterdam’s The Edge, one of the world’s most advanced “smart buildings,” uses smart lighting by Philips, which includes sensors that track and analyze motion, light levels, humidity and temperature to tailor work spaces to individuals as they move around the building.

Tork EasyCube Intelligent Restroom System

Tork EasyCube Intelligent Restroom System

2. Janitorial Services

Imagine you are a janitorial services manager running a large facility like a sports arena.  How do you know when a towel dispenser needs to be refilled?  Your cleaning staff could “make the rounds” and visually inspect the dispensers.  Or, you could turn to the Internet of Things.  I was introduced to the Tork EasyCube Intelligent Restroom System at Greenbuild.  Sensors in Tork EasyCube towel, soap and toilet paper dispensers measure their fill levels and allow maintenance staff to access the data via a web app.  With better data at their fingertips, facility managers can improve service to guests and tenants and improve their inventory management.

Nest Learning Thermostat

Nest Learning Thermostat

3. Heating and Cooling

On vacation and realizing that you forgot to turn down the heat in your unoccupied home?  No problem! Smart thermostats abound, and their feature sets keep expanding.  Whether you choose the Ecobee, Nest Learning Thermostat, Sensi or another brand, you’ll be able to control the heating and cooling of your home though a mobile app on your phone.  Several are also compatible with Apple’s Home Kit and Amazon Echo. 

Ring Video Doorbell

Ring Video Doorbell

4. Doorbells and Locks

For less than $200, the Ring video doorbell not only rings your phone when a visitor comes to your door, but it also monitors motion and sends alerts when it detects activity on your property.  And Ring doesn’t require any hardwiring, so adding it to your home is as easy as connecting it to your home network.  If you’re not at home but want to grant access to a visitor, you can now open your garage (check out LiftMaster’s MyQ opener technology) or unlock your doors (all of the major lock companies have products for this market - check our Kwikset, Schlage and Yale’s products).

From smart cars to home appliances to medical devices to commercial building automation systems, IoT enabled products abound and the market is growing exponentially.  Check back for a future post about how information security and enterprise risk management functions need to evolve to protect individuals and businesses against threats and vulnerabilities that accompany the growing phenomenon of the Internet of Things.

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Go Green! Lessons from a Sustainable Medical Office Renovation

Sunset Green Home is working on a new project – a sustainable renovation of a small medical office suite – and we’re about to order the wall coverings, floor coverings, doors and windows.  So how are we making this office a healthy place for doctors, patients AND the environment?  One way is our careful choice of the materials that will be installed in the office.  Here’s what we’re including:



MDF doors from TruStile with no added urea-formaldehyde.  Medium density fiberboard (MDF) contains nearly 100% recycled content.  It comprises sawdust wood fibers recaptured from sawmill waste.  But not all MDF is sustainable. To manufacture MDF, wood fibers are bound together with binders and resins - and those inputs still typically contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.  So, Sunset Green Home's team specified no added urea-formaldehyde MDF for the doors, which makes our MDF products recyclable at the end of their useful lives and - just as importantly - allows them to contribute to a healthy indoor environment.

Carpet tiles from InterfaceWe selected carpet tiles for their ease of replacement.  If the carpet becomes worn in certain areas, we can replace a few tiles as needed rather than an entire room of carpeting – an inherently sustainable strategy for reducing waste and lifecycle cost over time.  But that’s not all.  The carpet tiles we chose have pre-consumer (post-industrial) recycled content of 44% - 54% and post-consumer recycled content of 8% - 35%.  According to the US Green Building Council, incorporating recycled content reduces “impacts resulting from extraction and processing of virgin materials.”



Low and no VOC paints and adhesives.  According to the US EPA, “Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors.”  To promote healthy indoor air quality, all paints and adhesives used in construction will be low-emitting products compliant with the requirements of the LEED® green building program.

Durable wall coverings with sustainable characteristics.  Duraprene™ wall covering from Designtex exceeds the durability performance standards of vinyl, but is composed of reclaimed wood fibers and natural latex.  We sought a very durable product for this medium-traffic application that could be wiped clean and that featured recycled content and no off-gassing.



Durable porcelain tile for beauty and performance.  Durability is another key measure of a product's sustainability.  We chose Daltile's City View porcelain for the office vestibule and reception areas for its high slip resistance and breaking strength.  It will hold up well in a medium-traffic environment. The powder room and storage areas will use Daltile's Veranda Solids porcelain tile, another durable product that includes 17% recycled content.



We’re choosing our materials carefully to contain their environmental impact while creating a durable, healthy and attractive space!  Follow this project over the coming months to learn what else we’re doing to create a sustainable office space.

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Getting Serious About Composting!

I've been composting all wrong - and that ends today!

If you've been following the Sunset Green Home blog, you know I'm an avid gardener and grow almost all of the produce consumed by my family from May through October.  But, I have to admit that I've been a bit of a lazy composter. 

While cutting the dried stalks from this summer's onion crops - my garden's own "brown" biomass - I decided it was time to get serious about composting. 

Some of this summer's onions and shallots...

Some of this summer's onions and shallots...

...and the "brown" waste I trimmed away.

...and the "brown" waste I trimmed away.

We generate a large volume of plant-based kitchen scraps, but have very little "brown" material (we don't have many deciduous trees on our property, so dried leaves are not readily available).  And we have some wildlife issues - voles, raccoons, etc. - which complicates the situation.  Despite these less-than-optimal conditions, I still throw my kitchen scraps into a barrel-style bin to try to generate some usable compost.  And every year when I purchase organic compost to feed my garden, I tell myself that it's time to focus on creating my own (costless!) compost.  

When researching this post, I discovered that I've been composting all wrong!  While a barrel-style composter may be the right choice for some gardeners, it was the wrong choice for me.  Barrel compost bins are "batch" devices.  They are meant to be filled up and then left alone while the biomass inside, helped along by beneficial organisms, creates the "black gold" that gardeners seek.  It's helpful to have multiple barrel style compost bins (or a single device with multiple chambers) so that one can be filling while another is "cooking."  But for those people who don't want to dedicate the space or spend the money on multiple bins, or who tend to add to their bin on a continuous basis, batch composting may not be the right choice.  If you're like me and keep adding to a single barrel compost bin, it eventually becomes so heavy that it is impossible to turn and, if you're really unlucky, the handle breaks off while you're trying to spin it and leaves you with a giant bruise wherever the handle hits you (in my case, right in the middle of my kneecap!). 

I set out to research alternatives to the technology I had been using.  In areas where leaves and grass cuttings are abundant, and where animals are not an issue, open wire compost bins - filled in succession for batch-style composting - are a low cost and easy option.  The Internet abounds with DIY plans for compost bins of this type.  But since we don't have large volumes of compostable material, I focused my search on closed hot compost bins with no moving parts.

I looked specifically for bins with good reviews and with screens underneath to protect the contents inside from burrowing pests.  The Juwel AeroQuick compost bin and soil grid system came up with consistently favorable reviews.  With a retail price tag at Home Depot of $116 for the bin and $26 for the base grid, the combo seemed like a good investment, but not one I was willing to make before speaking with the manufacturer's rep to make sure I was making the right choice. 

I placed a call to Exaco Trading, the AeroQuick bin's distributor.  I received a lengthy education from Andrew Cook, one of Exaco’s owners.  Andrew encouraged me to try not only the 77 gallon AeroQuick 290, but a second product, the 112.5 gallon Aerobin 400 as well.  In the interest of full disclosure, Exaco Trading offered me promotional pricing to encourage me to do a side-by-side comparison.

AeroQuick 290 

AeroQuick 290 

Aerobin 400

Aerobin 400

The AeroQuick 290 is a well-priced compost bin perfectly sized for a home garden.  Unlike my batch-style barrel compost bin, the AeroQuick 290 is a continuous feed system with no moving parts.  We installed the optional bottom grid to discourage burrowing animals while still allowing "beneficials" (like earthworms) to access the pile.  We assembled the heavy duty bin (5 mm thick polypropylene with 40% recycled content) in just a few minutes and with no difficulty.  Although the bin includes an air flow system that facilitates the composting process, Andrew at Exaco Trading advised me that I would have to "turn" the material inside the bin occasionally.  But with a large top opening and two bottom openings, the AeroQuick makes the task easy.  And since it has no moving parts, I know my knees are safe!

The larger Aerobin 400, which retails for $333 at Home Depot, is a completely sealed bin with an integrated leachate tank to collect liquid nutrients that can be made into compost tea (a plus for us, as we have an EZ-FLO automatic fertilizing system that can deliver the compost tea to our plantings via our irrigation system).  With its patented “lung” aeration system, the Aerobin breaks down biomass without requiring me to turn the compost inside the bin.  With insulated side walls, the Aerobin should retain heat and break down my compost materials quickly.

Having the right compost bin is only one aspect of successful composting.  As I mentioned before, I was making some rookie mistakes in my composting method.  I was basically trying to make compost solely from kitchen scraps.  The key to successful composting is to have the right ratio of green (wet) waste to brown (dry) waste.  With my two new compost bins in place, I set out to fill them with the right mix of materials. 

Following the detailed instructions that came with the bins, I added approximately 4” of dry straw as a base layer to the bins, and then “seeded” the bins with beneficial bacteria by adding a bag of organic compost purchased from my local garden center.  At this stage I also added in the material from my barrel compost bin (yes, despite adding only kitchen scraps I did have some actual compost at the bottom of the barrel – replete with earthworms that had somehow found their way up off the ground and into the bin).  And then I began adding kitchen scraps to form a “green” layer on top.  As per the instructions, I’ll add more “brown” material when the layer of kitchen scraps is about 4” deep.  Check out the slide show to see how I filled the Aerobin 400 unit.

If you are considering composting, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Style of Bin.  There is no “one size fits all” technology when it comes to composting.  Select a bin based on your budget, composting habits, and other constraints (such as a need to deter pests).  We wanted to be able to add to the pile on a continuous basis and needed a technology that would keep out burrowing pests like voles.  This led us to choose the closed bin system represented by AeroQuick and Aerobin. 
  • Size of Bin.  Bins come in a multitude of sizes.  Choose a small compost bin if you’re only adding kitchen scraps.  If you have a large property that generates leaf and grass waste, you may want to opt for a larger composting container or open bin system.  Keep in mind that, if you use chemical fertilizers on your grass, you should leave your grass cuttings out of the compost that you plan to work into your vegetable patch.  We have a large garden; once I pull out the tomato vines and other plants at the end of the season, I imagine I will be able to fill the larger Aerobin 400 (as well as the AeroQuick 290). 
  • Compost Recipe.  You’ll achieve the best results if you balance green and brown wastes, and include a “diet” of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials to stimulate microbial activity. The best ratio of carbon to nitrogen is approximately 25-30:1.  Click here for a table of carbon to nitrogen ratios for the materials you may want to add to your pile.  For optimal microbial activity, you also want to make sure that the compost pile is moist to the touch, but not overly wet.

My new compost bins are up and running.  I’ll report back periodically on how they’re working out! In the meantime, leave a comment and let us know what has worked for you!


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Practical Sustainability: Saving Water Without Sacrificing Shower Performance

If you've been following our blog, you may remember that our very first Practical Sustainability column advocated switching to low flow shower heads.  At the time I had written about a low flow Speakman shower head, which I thought was a great product.  I had purchased my "test" shower head as a replacement for a 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) Speakman shower head that had been a great work horse for a decade.  

In these dog days of summer, when many regions have been experiencing extreme drought conditions, I'm revisiting the topic.  In the past 2+ years, we have seen additional technological advances.  What was a good idea back then is a great idea now.  

According to the US EPA's web site, showering accounts "for nearly 17% of residential indoor water use."  Switching from standard 2.5 gpm shower heads to EPA WaterSense labeled shower heads that use 2.0 gpm of water not only saves water, but also saves on energy used to heat the water.  In fact, if every US household made the switch, we would realize nationwide annual savings of more than 260 billion gallons of water and $2.6 billion in energy cost.  For reference, a billion gallons of water is a year's worth of water for 250,000 people. 

Hansgrohe Croma Green Showerpipe

Hansgrohe Croma Green Showerpipe

For many of us, however, the term "low flow shower head" conjures up images of dreadful motel showers with barely a trickle of water.  After installing WaterSense shower heads ranging from 1.75 gpm to 2.0 gpm, I can attest to the fact that you don't need to give up performance to save water.  Sunset Green Home installed Hansgrohe shower pipes in several bathrooms.  They use Hansgrohe's AirPower technology, which mixes air with water to deliver a satisfying shower through their 2.0 gpm shower heads and 1.75 gpm handheld shower components.  They're as green as they are beautiful.  

This spring, I attended Buildings NY, a trade show for building owners and operators, and spent some time at the convention's product expo.  I happened upon the Speakman booth and showed the company reps the blog I had written two years ago.  In response, they told me about several additional technological advances and encouraged me to try a couple of their newest products. 

Speakman 2.0 gpm Hotel Pure Low-Flow Shower Head

Speakman 2.0 gpm Hotel Pure Low-Flow Shower Head

We installed the 2.0 gpm Speakman Hotel Pure Low-Flow filtered shower head in our master bathroom.  We had already swapped our 2.5 gpm shower head for a 2.0 gpm shower head two years ago, so I wasn't expecting any additional water savings.  However, I was intrigued by the Hotel Pure's ability to remove nearly all of the chlorine that is added to our municipal water supply - a boon for skin and hair (particularly for those of us who color our hair and know how much damage chlorine can do).  We haven't been disappointed. 

Speakman 1.75 gpm Echo Multi-Function Low-Flow Shower Head

Speakman 1.75 gpm Echo Multi-Function Low-Flow Shower Head

We also tried the Speakman Echo Multi-Function low flow shower head, which uses 84 individual nozzles to deliver several spray patterns.  We have been using the 1.75 gpm version with great results.  We installed it in a small shower whose 2.5 gpm shower head was so forceful that we would regularly find puddles of water on the floor outside the shower.  Now we're enjoying a comfortable shower and 30% water savings.  Three sets of house guests this summer have commented on how nice the shower is!

If changing your shower head seems like a daunting task, check out the slide show below.  Anyone can change a shower head in a matter of minutes.  It's easy!  So go ahead and give it a try.  You'll reduce your water bill and save precious resources at the same time.  Now that's what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Check for Water Leaks…That Little Drip is More Costly Than You Think

I fixed a leaky faucet today.  The job took about three minutes to do, thanks to the simple instructions sent to me by the manufacturer, California Faucets.  It was just a little drip…but little drips can be costly to the environment and dangerous for your home. 

About a month ago, my daughter – who doesn’t live at home anymore – mentioned that the cold water tap in her bathroom was dripping.  In truth, I rarely go into her bathroom, so I have no idea how long the faucet was leaking.  But if you’ve been following my blogs, you know that I like to quantify the impact of the issues I write about, so I decided to do the same here.  I timed how long it took to fill a measuring cup to the ¼ cup mark and here’s what I got:

Actual time to capture ¼ cup of water: 4.75 minutes

Calculated time to capture 1 gallon of water: 304 minutes

Minutes in a year: 525,600

Gallons of lost water in a year: 1,729

1,729 gallons!  That’s a lot of water from a small drip.  According to the US EPA, our leak, which would represent approximately 1.6% of the water use of an average American family, is actually on the low side.  In fact, the agency estimates that 13.7% of domestic water use is attributed to leaks. 

With this back-of-the-envelope math in hand, I began to wonder…How much am I paying as a result of this leak, and does this represent the true economic cost of the problem?  This sounds like a leading question…and it is.  According to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, NYC water costs 1 cent per gallon.  At this price, the leak in my daughter’s sink would cost me approximately $17 per year.  But if I have other undetected leaks and lose water at the average rate of 13.7% of annual water use, the cost rises to $150 annually.  However, neither one of these figures represent the true economic and environmental cost of the water leak.

The billed water cost may be somewhere in the order of $17 - $150 per year, but that’s only part of what I’m paying for.  So what is missing? 

  • If the water leak is in a hot water tap (this time it wasn’t, but now I’m speaking hypothetically), I will also be paying for the energy to heat the water.  According to the US Department of Energy, “Water heating is the second largest energy expense in your home. It typically accounts for about 18% of your utility bill after heating and cooling.”
  • What comes in must go out.  Water that goes down the drain ends up in the sewers, and in NYC, we pay sewerage fees as well.  So I’m paying for the water that comes out of my daughter’s leaky faucet and I’m paying again for that same water as it leaves my building through the drain. 
  • When I send clean, treated water into the sewer system, it returns to a sewage treatment plant where it will be unnecessarily treated again.  In municipalities where wastewater volume outstrips the ability of the system to process it, water utilities are forced to invest in additional capacity – representing a capital cost that is ultimately passed on to consumers. 
  • When a leak goes undetected for a prolonged period of time, the risk of mold growth and property damage increases.  There may be significant cost involved in mitigating the problem once it has gotten out of hand.  Several years ago, we learned that one of our shower pans had failed and was leaking into the apartment below ours.  Thankfully our insurance covered most of the cost of the damage – but we still had to pay the deductible, and both we and our neighbors had to endure the time and headache involved in coordinating and completing the repairs.

Data to quantify these additional costs is hard to find.  But the argument for detecting and repairing leaks still makes sense.  So here’s what we can do to minimize our water consumption from leaks:

  • Periodically check your toilets for leaks.  Pour a teaspoon of food coloring into the tank of your toilet.  Wait 10 – 20 minutes and then look to see if the colored water has leaked into the toilet bowl.  If the water in the bowl is colored, you have a leaky flapper that may need to be replaced.  Some utilities and municipalities (like New York City) provide free test kits with dye tablets that you can drop in your tank. 
  • Check your faucets for leaks on a regular basis – particularly in rooms that don’t see much use.  In the case of my daughter’s bathroom sink, I called the faucet manufacturer, California Faucets, and learned that I had a lifetime warranty on the faucet cartridge.  The company’s customer service was excellent – they not only sent a new cartridge, but also emailed step-by-step instructions that enabled me to change the faulty cartridge myself in less than three minutes (check out the slide show below to see how easy it was to fix the leak). 
  • Look under your washing machine and dishwasher, and at the pipes inside your kitchen and bathroom sink cabinets for dripping or pooled water that indicate you have a leak.
  • If you have an automatic irrigation system for your lawn or garden, check for puddles or areas where water seems to be bubbling up from the ground.  And check where your garden hose attaches to the hose bib.  If water is leaking at the connection, apply some plumbing tape to create a better seal.
  • Review your water bill to see if your consumption patterns have changed.  If you can’t explain why your water consumption has increased, you may have a leak that you can’t see and that may need to be reviewed by a professional. 

Adding leak detection to your home maintenance routine makes good sense.  Leaks can often be repaired for little or no cost, and can save you money and headaches in the long term.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability.

Practical Sustainability is a periodic column that provides practical, low-cost tips for living a more sustainable life.



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STOP! Before you throw it away…

...Check the warranty and call the manufacturer!  You may very well be able to fix it for free or at a minimal cost.

In this month’s Practical Sustainability column, I advocate for reaching out to the manufacturer before you replace something that you think might be irreparably broken.  Think of "Repair" as an add-on to the familiar "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" adage.

Last month, several of our plumbing fixtures developed problems.  This came as little surprise to me.  After all, our fixtures are now 14 years old, dating back to 2002 when we purchased and renovated our apartment.  And we live in a 100 year old building with hard water.  Our fixtures have been workhorses and have served us well all this time.  But after a decade-and-a-half of use by a family of five, our fixtures started to show some wear and tear.

I believed at a minimum that I’d have a really expensive visit from the plumber and that I’d potentially have to replace my kitchen faucet.  But then I gave some thought to calling the manufacturers, and here’s what I learned:

  • My Grohe kitchen faucet, whose spray function recently stopped working, has a lifetime warranty.  Grohe sent a new faucet head, and all I had to do was unscrew the old one and screw in the new one
  • Our daughter’s bathroom sink faucet by California Faucets was also under warranty, and so the company offered to send a new cartridge to stop a drip that had developed on the cold water side (stay tuned for a post dedicated to quantifying the environmental cost of the leaky faucet)
  • While our toilet tank filler was no longer under warranty, the technical customer service representative at Toto was able to pinpoint the issue and then sent me links to the exact replacement part I needed ($25 from Toto or $12.50 by a third party).  In the interest of full disclosure, after a robust conversation about sustainability and why New Yorkers don’t seem to be as concerned about water conservation as Californians, the Toto representative sent the part to me for free.
All the parts we needed to repair two faucets and a toilet - sent under warranty by the manufacturers

All the parts we needed to repair two faucets and a toilet - sent under warranty by the manufacturers

So why am I writing about this as a Practical Sustainability topic?  For a couple of reasons…

  • Repairing, rather than replacing, an item minimizes the amount of waste you send to landfill.  I have consulted with manufacturers for warranty repairs on everything from the lid of my favorite sauté pan to a number of parts on my Weber barbecue grill to the plumbing fixtures described above.  In each case, a short phone call resulted in my receiving the parts I needed to make a simple repair and extend the life of my product.
  • There’s an embedded environmental cost (“embedded energy” or “embodied energy”) in all physical goods, which derives from the energy used to manufacture them, the resources expended to transport them, etc.  Avoiding a complete product replacement is a more environmentally friendly choice.
  • Specifically where plumbing is concerned, some of us may live with a small leak longer than we should out of concern over the disruption and cost of having to schedule a plumber’s visit.  By emailing photos of the fixtures to each of Grohe, California Faucets and Toto, I was able to diagnose the issue and have the replacement part on site in advance of calling the plumber.  In fact, I am planning to make the repairs myself, as the manufacturers also sent installation instructions to me – so the total dollar cost of fixing the issues will be zero.  But if you feel more comfortable calling on a plumbing professional (or other contractor, depending on what you need to have repaired), at least you can minimize the cost and hassle by having the right parts on hand before the appointment.

So the next time you think about replacing an item, considering repairing it instead to minimize the embodied energy and cost of doing so.  And when you're making a product purchase, consider the terms of the manufacturer's warranty and the company's record for customer service.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!


Practical Sustainability is a periodic column that provides practical, low-cost tips for living a more sustainable life.

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Practical Sustainability: Clean Your Filters!

Spring has sprung!  So it's time for spring cleaning.  And that means cleaning or replacing the filters in all of the equipment and appliances in your home that use them.  You'll find filters in your heating and air conditioning system, ventilation system, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner and elsewhere.  Dirty filters reduce the performance of your systems and cause them to use more energy as a result.

Clogged filters not only reduce the energy efficiency of your HVAC systems, but they have the potential to affect the quality of the air in your home.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, filters, "if loaded to excess, will become deformed and even “blow out”, leading to clogged coils, dirty ducts, reduced indoor air quality and greater energy use."

When Sunset Green Home's whole home ventilation system – a Zehnder ComfoAir 550 – was commissioned last fall, the intake and outflow of the system was tested and adjusted so that each room was receiving the amount of fresh air required by the system design.  Our LEED Green Rater, Rich Manning, recently stopped by the house and retested the air flow, which he found to have dropped below the design parameters.  His recommendation...change the air filters. 

Check out how easy it was to change the filters:


Where to Look for Filters in Your Home

Look for the following filters and make sure to replace them as part of your spring cleaning:

  • Refrigerator.  If you have an ice maker or a water dispenser on the door of your fridge then you likely have a filter.  You may have noticed that your water dispenser has slowed to a trickle.  That's an indicator that your filter is clogged.  You can easily order a new filter and replace it yourself.  You should find instructions on how to do it in your user manual.
  • Air Conditioner.  Whether you have a portable window unit, a through-the-wall installed unit, or central air conditioning, you will have filters – and they need to be cleaned every two or three months when your air conditioners are in use.  For window and through-the-wall units, it’s easy to clean the filters yourself – just open the front panel and remove the (washable) filter.  Clean it and replace it.  If you have central air conditioning and are somewhat handy, you’ll generally find air filters at the air handling units and potentially behind your return air grilles.  Remove the old filters and replace with new filters (which you can order on line from a number of sources).  Make sure to turn the A/C units off before replacing the filters.
  • Vacuum Cleaner.  Even the best quality vacuums can’t do their jobs if their air filters are clogged.  You want your vacuum not only to pick up larger bits of dirt and dust, but also to trap small particles that you may not be able to see.  One set of new filters is generally included in the package when you purchase new bags.  Don’t forget to install a new filter each time you open a new box of vacuum bags.
  • Ventilation System.  If you have a separate whole home ventilation system, make sure, as I described above with our Zehnder ERV, to change the filters regularly.  Check out the slide show above to see how easy it is!
  • Furnace.  Like your central air conditioning system, your furnace will also have a filter near its intake/outflow blower fan.  Turn the furnace off, slide the filter out of its housing, insert a new filter and close the access panel.
  • Kitchen Hood.  The range hood over your stove may have washable baffles or metal mesh filters.  Make sure to clean them regularly to keep your fan from having to overwork to clear the air.  Follow the manufacturer’s instructions – mine go right into the dishwasher!
  • Dryer Lint Filter.  While you’re at it, make sure to check the lint filter in your dryer (which you should clean before every load in order to reduce the risk of a fire).

It’s that easy!  You’ll feel better knowing that your filters are trapping the contaminants in your air and water, and your equipment will run more efficiently. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Landscape Maintenance for Longevity and Sustainability

As a new homeowner, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to control my cost of home ownership – and making the connection between maintenance and sustainability.  After all, if we can make our possessions last longer by maintaining them in good working order, we will have to replace them less frequently – and that’s better for the environment. 

But why am I writing about landscape maintenance in January?  We live in the northeast, which experienced a major snowstorm a week ago.  As the storm was approaching, I called Marcus Stinchi of Stinchi Landscaping and asked what we could do to protect the new trees and plants that had been installed as part of the LEED® Platinum certified Sunset Green Home project. 

Marcus recommended that we:

  • Install tall stakes up the driveway to mark the border between the driveway and the adjacent planting beds to prevent snow plows from accidentally damaging the young plants that are still low to the ground
  • Spray anti-dessicant on broadleaf evergreen trees when the temperature will be above freezing for at least 24 hours.  Organic anti-dessicants provide a protective waxy coating that prevents moisture loss through the leaves and needles during dry, windy and cold winter conditions.  According to Marcus, "Anti-desiccant protects the trees from the harsh winds and salt. Often the 'burning' you see on trees is from them drying out from harsh winds or salt damage from the ocean."
  • Wrap newly planted trees in burlap to protect them from the drying effect of high winds predicted to arrive with the storm.  We may not need to provide this same level of protection once the trees have had a couple of years to establish themselves, but Sunset Green Home has a number of recently planted native evergreen trees.  Protecting them with burlap is akin to purchasing an insurance policy for them. 

The most sustainable strategy for native landscaping is to preserve what is already planted.  Trees and plants need time to become established and can take many years to grow to mature size.  So when harsh winter conditions threaten, it makes sense to give some thought to winter landscape maintenance. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Offset Your Carbon Footprint

In describing the unusual weather patterns we’ve experienced recently, today’s New York Times reports,

“This El Niño, one of the strongest on record, comes atop a long-term heating of the planet caused by mankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases. A large body of scientific evidence says those emissions are making certain kinds of extremes, such as heavy rainstorms and intense heat waves, more frequent. Coincidence or not, every kind of trouble that the experts have been warning about for years seems to be occurring at once.”

Each month my Practical Sustainability column recommends small actions that individuals can take to reduce their impact on the environment.  Over the course of this year, I have recommended such actions as growing a vegetable garden, reducing consumption of meat products, washing clothes in cold water, using biodegradable pet waste bags and replacing bathroom fans with ones that are more energy efficient. 

But, try as we might, it is impossible for most people to have zero impact on the environment.  So, this month’s Practical Sustainability column advises that we learn about our individual carbon emissions and then consider purchasing carbon offsets to bring down our carbon footprints.

Carbon footprint calculators abound.  Try the calculators at such non-profit web sites as The Nature Conservancy or Foundation.   Or on the web sites of companies like TerraPass.  Or visit the US EPA web site where you can use a calculator on line or download it into Excel.  According to the Nature Conservancy calculator, my household’s carbon footprint is 32 tons of CO2 annually, which compares favorably to a US average of 80 tons per year, but is considerably higher than a world average of 17 tons annually (carbon footprints of households in developing economies are much lower than in those of developed nations). 

Once you know your individual or household carbon footprint, consider purchasing carbon offsets. explains it this way: “Carbon offsets let you help build projects in communities across the country that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond what you can achieve through individual action. Carbon offsets are purchased to fund these projects and diminish the impact of your own GHG emissions, even though the projects are located elsewhere. Carbon Offsets make environmental and economic sense- for emissions that are impossible to reduce, you can use funds to help reduce emissions elsewhere.”  You can invest in carbon offsets by supporting organizations like the ones mentioned above whose projects reduce carbon emissions through renewable energy and reforestation. 

Make sure to support organizations whose projects are verified by third parties and whose results are audited for accuracy.  The Natural Resources Defense Council provides some helpful guidance for identifying and evaluating carbon offset projects.

So, as 2015 comes to a close, think about what you can do in 2016 to reduce your environmental impact…and then consider carbon offsets for the balance of your carbon footprint.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Get to Know LEED®: How to Provide Thermal Comfort in a LEED for Homes Project

If you’ve been following Sunset Green Home, you know that the LEED for Homes green building program focuses on aspects of sustainability such as energy efficiency, water efficiency, sustainable site design and healthy indoor air quality.  But did you know that following the LEED for Homes guidelines results in greater thermal comfort for a home’s occupants?

On average, Americans spend approximately 90% of their time indoors.  So the LEED for Homes green building program offers strategies for achieving healthy indoor air quality – one aspect of which is occupant thermal comfort. 

Thermal comfort, which refers to a person’s satisfaction with the temperature of his or her environment, is influenced by several factors, each of which I’ll address in turn:

  1. Air temperature
  2. Air velocity
  3. Relative humidity
  4. Radiant temperature
One of five thermostats that control Sunset Green Home's Mitsubishi heating and cooling system

One of five thermostats that control Sunset Green Home's Mitsubishi heating and cooling system

 1. Air Temperature

LEED for Homes encourages projects to install multi-zone systems for heating and cooling, which allows occupants to tailor the temperature of a space to their own perceived level of comfort.  In the Sunset Green Home project, we installed a four-ton five-zone Mitsubishi Hyper Heating inverter-driven heat pump system (sized using ACCA Manual J calculations…more about that later).  Not only is the system extremely energy efficient, but with a variable speed compressor, it delivers an even rate of heating and cooling once its set points have been reached. 

But air temperature isn’t controlled by mechanical heating and cooling alone.  Sunset Green Home also implemented strategies to provide passive means of keeping the air temperature where we want it to be:

  • High quality windows resist solar heat gain
  • Automated solar shades made of high performance fabrics preserve the view but cut down on the amount of solar heat admitted into the house.  Sunset Green Home's shades are tied into our Elan g! home automation system, which raises and lowers them automatically
  • Insulation levels that exceed Code requirements and attention to air sealing result in a home that naturally stays cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter – without any draftiness
Solar shades from The Shade Store use high performance fabric from Phifer to control solar heat gain.  Somfy motors tie into Sunset Green Home's Elan g! home automation system

Solar shades from The Shade Store use high performance fabric from Phifer to control solar heat gain.  Somfy motors tie into Sunset Green Home's Elan g! home automation system

2. Air Velocity

Air movement reduces the temperature perceived by a room’s occupants.  The LEED for Homes program rewards projects that install ENERGY STAR rated ceiling fans in each bedroom and in the living spaces. 

But not all fans are created equal and occupant behavior can sometimes lead to INCREASED energy use rather than reduced energy use.  According to a 2013 article published by Green Building Advisor, “The same way a breeze cools you off, a ceiling fan can make you feel cooler, but only if you are close enough to it to feel the air blowing on you. If you can’t feel it, it isn’t doing any good.”  The article goes on to assert that another hazard with ceiling fans is that some have motors that create a great deal of heat – which runs counter to the desired cooling effect that most occupants hope to achieve. 

Big Ass Fans has come up with a solution to address both of these potential ceiling fan drawbacks.  The Big Ass Haiku model is the most energy efficient ENERGY STAR rated fan available – and an energy efficient motor generates less heat than a less efficient motor.  And Big Ass Fans has developed SenseME technology, an advanced technology that “monitors the room’s temperature and humidity, adjusting fan speed when conditions change.”  

"The typical home has more than three fans, but they’re no smarter or better looking than your great-grandma’s,” said Carey Smith, founder and Chief Big Ass of Big Ass Fans. “In the past couple of years, we’ve seen smart thermostats and smart light bulbs, yet you still have to pull a chain to start your ceiling fan.  SenseME changes everything."  According to Big Ass Fans, “SenseME knows when you enter or leave a room, turning Haiku on and off automatically.”

Big Ass Fans' caramel bamboo Haiku fan with SenseME technology provides energy efficient air movement that automatically adjusts to changing occupancy and humidity conditions

Big Ass Fans' caramel bamboo Haiku fan with SenseME technology provides energy efficient air movement that automatically adjusts to changing occupancy and humidity conditions

According to the US Department of Energy, “using a ceiling fan will allow you to raise the thermostat setting about 4 degrees without impacting your comfort.”  Sunset Green Home elected to install Big Ass Haiku fans with SenseME technology in each bedroom, the living room and den, the screened porch, and in the pool cabana, which is not air conditioned.  By installing Haiku ceiling fans throughout the home, we have been able to commission our air conditioning at set points that are several degrees above where they’d be if we didn’t have the fans.  We’re cool and comfortable, and saving energy at the same time! 

3. Relative Humidity

LEED for Homes requires a project to size its heating and cooling equipment to its actual thermal load using industry standard calculations developed and approved by ACCA, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, a non-profit body that creates that standards for HVAC design and performance.  The ACCA system sizing calculation (called a Manual J) ensures that a home’s heating and cooling equipment is not oversized.  Why is this important?  An oversized air conditioning system will reach its set point quickly and will then cycle off until the thermostat perceives that the temperature has moved beyond an acceptable deviation from the desired temperature, which in turn causes the equipment to start up again.  This on/off cycle can lead to humidity problems inside a home. 

Ideally, air conditioning equipment should run consistently; moisture is removed from the air as it passes across an air conditioner’s coils.  But a system that experiences “short cycling” will doesn’t move enough air across the compressor’s coils to dehumidify it.  Because it was sized using the ACCA Manual J calculation, Sunset Green Home’s Mitsubishi heating and cooling system’s properly sized variable speed compressor ensures that air is constantly moving across the coils.  And the system can be operated in “Dry” mode, which keeps the coil temperature just below the dew point of the return air to remove unwanted moisture from the home. 

4. Radiant Temperature

Radiant temperature refers to the heat emanating from surrounding surfaces.  LEED for Homes addresses radiant temperature effects through credits aimed at reducing the “heat island effect” – which occurs when surfaces in and around a structure absorb heat from the sun, and then radiate that heat into the structure and into the air around it.  By minimizing local heat island effects in warmer climates, a home’s air conditioning system won’t have to work as hard – or use as much energy – to cool the house.  We can minimize heat island effects by using light-colored materials for roofs, decks, driveways and sidewalks, and by providing shading to hardscapes.  Sunset Green Home installed a light colored permeable pebble driveway to reduce the heat island effect.

*                      *                      *

Big Ass Fans' Haiku with LED lighting and SenseME technology in one of Sunset Green Home's bedrooms

Big Ass Fans' Haiku with LED lighting and SenseME technology in one of Sunset Green Home's bedrooms

You don’t have to seek LEED certification to make smart decisions that will deliver energy and cost efficient thermal comfort.  When you are looking to install or upgrade your heating and cooling system, consider a multi-zone system to allow for individual occupant comfort, keep the air moving in occupied spaces to allow for more energy efficient temperature set points, and keep humidity at bay by not oversizing your system.  You’ll be comfortable, your pocketbook will be happier, and you’ll be reducing your impact on the environment.  This is a win-win-win for triple bottom line principles of economic, human and environmental impact.  

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Practical Sustainability: Reduce Your Meat Consumption

This month's Practical Sustainability column proposes that you consider reducing your meat consumption for a direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions. 

According to a 2013 study published by the United Nations, Tackling Climate Change through Livestock, 14.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions related to human activity are generated by the global livestock industry, with beef and cattle milk responsible for the greatest emissions (41% and 20% of the industry sector's emissions respectively) by animal species.

Earlier this month, I attended the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, an annual event for sustainability professionals.  James Cameron, filmmaker and environmentalist, was the keynote speaker at Greenbuild’s opening plenary session.  He presented a compelling case for reducing our consumption of meat and animal products for environmental reasons.  His vegan diet (which avoids all animal products) may not be for everyone.  But it did get me thinking about what would happen if each of us made a small change in our dining habits.     

So what adjustments can we, as individuals, make to reduce our consumption and our impact and what is it worth in environmental terms?  According to the Environmental Working Group, "If everyone in the U.S. ate no milk or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles - or taking 7.6 million cars off the road." 

For me, this looks like a day that begins with soy or almond milk in my coffee, oatmeal with blueberries for breakfast, a salad at lunchtime made with greens, chick peas, carrots, walnuts, beets and avocado, and a tofu stir fry with green beans and mushrooms for dinner.  This isn’t a sacrifice in terms of enjoyment or nutrition.  So I’ve been cutting out meat and dairy two to three days each week since I learned how easy it can be to make an immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

There are health benefits to a non-meat diet as well.  Vegetarian diets tend to be higher in fiber and lower in fat and cholesterol than meat-based diets.  According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, there is some evidence that vegetarians are at lower risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer (particularly colon cancer, whose only “convincing” dietary association is with consumption of red meat) and Type 2 diabetes.

So when you get up tomorrow morning, think about drinking your coffee black and making it a day with no meat or dairy.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!



Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at

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Practical Sustainability: Take One Action Today

I live in an apartment building, so I don't see my neighbors over the backyard fence.  Instead, my chance encounters tend to take place in the elevator.  And yesterday morning I had an unsettling conversation with one of my neighbors in the elevator as we were both heading out to work.  It went something like this:

Me: "Did you see the front page article in the NY Times about the melting ice sheet in Greenland?"

Neighbor: "I did.  Those poor people up in Greenland.  They're losing their country."

Me: "Yes.  And the rest of us...all that melting water is affecting us too.  I feel like we're leaving a legacy of a ruined planet for our grandchildren."

Neighbor: "That's true.  Some scientists are going to have to work really hard to try to fix this"

Me: "And us too.  People are going to have to change their habits."

Neighbor: "If it would only help..."

With that we left the building and headed our separate ways.  And I've been mulling over that conversation ever since.  Do we, as individuals, really believe we can't have any impact on greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change?  Does our inaction reflect an overwhelming sense of if our individual actions can't make a difference?  In truth, I had never really though of it this way.  I guess I have always chalked individual inaction up to narcissism or selfishness or a sense that this is someone else's problem.  But never that it reflected a sense of hopelessness.

Three years ago today Hurricane Sandy pummeled the east coast and left our home uninhabitable.  And I was feeling pretty hopeless.  But today, three years later, our new green home has just been completed, we're finalizing the paperwork for our LEED certification, and making sustainable choices no longer feels's just part of how we live.

So in this month's Practical Sustainability column, I offer some facts as an encouragement for individual action.  Think about what you can do...and then multiply that by the number of people in your family, the number of families in your community, the number of communities in your state.  

  1. Replace incandescent bulbs in the lights you use most frequently with LED bulbs.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, you can save up to $70 on your electric bill.  And if you replace five 75W bulbs with LEDs that use a quarter of the energy, you will save the equivalent of the CO2 emissions from burning 1,820 pounds of coal.
  2. The next time you fill up your gas tank, fill up your tires as well.  The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that more than 25% of cars suffer from under-inflated tires of 8psi or more below the manufacturer's recommended level.  Under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3% for every 1 psi drop in pressure. For a car owner who drives 15,000 miles per year in a car that earns 20 mpg, proper tire inflation can provide the equivalent carbon sequestration as that of five trees grown for 10 years.  
  3. Install a power strip and use it to power down your computer, printer and accessories at the end of the day.  In the US alone, idle electronics account for the equivalent annual output of 12 power plants!
  4. Use cold water for your wash loads.  90% of laundry energy use comes from heating the water.  Consumer Reports estimates that a family can save $60/year on average by reducing its wash temperature.  And by only running loads when you have enough to fill the machine, you can save up to 3,400 gallons of water annually, according to the US Department of Energy.

The numbers add up very quickly.  Take heart!  Your small individual actions can make a world of change.  Now that's what I can Practical Sustainability.


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Practical Sustainability: Grow Your Own!

Monday night was my night to make pickles.  My garden cup runneth over where cucumbers and dill are concerned, and my father-in-law had brought five pounds of beans over to me from his garden.  As I was busy pickling, I started to do some mental math about how much money I was saving and the impact of my gardening activities on the planet.  It all added up to a simple conclusion: gardening saves money and natural resources and – as an added bonus – provides me with the comfort of knowing where my food comes from and what has gone into its production (here’s a hint: just water…no chemicals).

In one evening, I pickled 10 quarts of beans and cukes.  At $8 or $9 per PINT for gourmet pickles in the market, that’s over $150 in pickle value.  And what did it cost to make?  Less than a dollar each for the reusable canning jars, just a few dollars for vinegar and spices, and less than $3 each for packets of organic bean and cucumber seeds.  And our bean and cucumber plants aren't nearly finished producing yet!

Cucumber vines and dill heads in the Sunset Green Home garden

Cucumber vines and dill heads in the Sunset Green Home garden

I can’t help but factor in the environmental impact of having my own organic garden.  I didn’t have to burn any fossil fuel driving to the market to buy my pickles, and no fossil fuels were consumed in transporting the pickles to the store to be sold. 

Even if you don’t have space for a full garden, consider planting an herb garden.  Have you ever traveled to the market, purchased a bunch of parsley or cilantro or dill for a couple of dollars, used a fraction of it and then had to throw it out when it turned into a soupy mess at the bottom of your fridge?  Now consider harvesting just the amount you need from your herb garden.  Nothing goes to waste!  Herbs like sage, tarragon, thyme, chives and rosemary are perennial in my region - so I can plant them once and keep on harvesting year after year!

Sunset Green Home's perennial herb bed

Sunset Green Home's perennial herb bed

I’m looking forward to harvesting some peppers, tomatoes, squash and eggplant this weekend, and snipping a few herbs for a nice ratatouille.  And come Monday, I’ll be pickling another batch of beans and cucumbers – which I’ll put into storage for our family’s enjoyment all winter long. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Go Green! How to Choose Your Wood Products Wisely...

By Kim Erle and Louis Caiola

Wood. It's Everywhere.  Wood pilings.  Wood framing.  Wood sub flooring.  Wood sheathing.  Wood flooring.  Wood cabinetry.  Wood paneling.  Wood doors.  Wood shingles.  Wood roof.  Wood decking.

Deforestation has been found to be responsible for 20-25% of global warming
— World Preservation Foundation

According to the World Preservation Foundation, “deforestation has been found to be responsible for 20-25% of global warming, due to the massive release of CO2 that had been captured and stored in the trees. To get a picture of just how much CO2 is being released, deforestation releases as much CO2 into the atmosphere in one day as would 8 million people flying from London to New York.”

With so much wood integrated into the Sunset Green Home project, we've given a great deal of thought to where our wood components come from and what we can do to minimize our impact on the environment. 

Here are some of our strategies:

  1. The LEED for Homes program prohibits the use of tropical hardwoods that do not carry Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.  There's a reason many people choose tropical hardwood for exterior decking.  These woods are not only beautiful, but they hold up well over time.  However, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, "15 percent of annual anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon emissions come from tropical deforestation."  FSC certified wood products come from well-managed forests whose owners go through rigorous certification and continuous oversight to ensure minimal environmental impact.  Sunset Green Home selected Walk Green Products' FSC-certified cumaru, which was provided by Sterritt Lumber, a 2014 recipient of the FSC Leadership Award.
  2. Nantucket Beadboard medium density fiberboard (MDF) paneling and Tru-Stile MDF doors will also contribute to the project's LEED credits.  MDF contains nearly 100% recycled content.  It comprises sawdust wood fibers recaptured from sawmill waste.  But not all MDF is sustainable. To manufacture MDF, wood fibers are bound together with binders and resins - and those inputs still typically contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.  Sunset Green Home's team specified no added urea-formaldehyde MDF for both the doors and the paneling, which makes our MDF products recyclable at the end of their useful lives and - just as importantly - allows them to contribute to a healthy indoor environment.
  3. The kitchen and other millwork in the home have been constructed from Decospan's Shinnoki and Querkus products.  Decospan is dedicated to environmental stewardship and healthy products.  Shinnoki veneers are FSC certified, as is the MDF used in the base boards.  The adhesives and finishes contain zero VOCs and are manufactured without added urea-formaldehyde.
  4. Sunset Green Home's ZIP System sheathing and AdvanTech sub-flooring qualify for LEED credits in the program's Materials & Resources credit category because the wood used in both systems was grown, extracted and processed within 500 miles of the project.  The same goes for the pilings that support the house.  By using regionally grown and processed wood products, we are reducing the environmental impact from transportation.
  5. The country grade wide plank white oak floor is gorgeous and sustainable.  Woodwrights Wide Plank Flooring is a local company whose mill is only 15 minutes from Sunset Green Home.  The floors were milled and finished locally, which minimized the cost and impact from transportation.
  6. We chose Certi-Label taper sawn western red cedar roof shingles supplied by Anbrook Industries and Certi-Label side wall shingles supplied by Liberty Cedar. The Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau's Certi-Label program ensures that the shingles meet third party quality and sustainability standards.  Sunset Green Home's use of thicker taper sawn shingles, while slightly more expensive than more commonly used Perfection shingles, means that our roof will last longer.  And a longer life means less waste over time.  We met with Brooke Meeker, Anbrook's CEO to discuss her company's products.  Watch our video interview of Brook to learn why sustainable forestry is so important.

You can probably tell that we undertook a tremendous amount of research to get Sunset Green Home's wood products sourcing right.  It's important to know where your wood products come from.  The next time you're in the market for building materials, furniture or other wood products, take a moment to learn where they come from.  You’ll be armed with the information you need to make a sustainable choice!

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Get to Know LEED: Reduce Appliance Energy Consumption

By Louis Caiola (editor: Kim Erle)

The LEED for Homes Green Building Program awards projects up to three points for energy and water efficient appliances.  Sunset Green Home plans to capture all three possible points.  Here's how…

High Efficiency Appliances (maximum 2 points):

A project can earn up to two points by choosing from a list of four high efficiency appliances types (in fact, Sunset Green Home will meet the requirements of all types, but the LEED for Homes only awards a maximum of two points in the credit category).

  1. ENERGY STAR labeled Refrigerator (1 point):  A new ENERGY STAR labeled refrigerator can save up to 50% more energy than models manufactured prior to 1993. Sunset Green Home will meet the requirement by installing a Thermador 30” fresh food column – selected not only for its energy efficiency, but because using separate fridge and freezer columns gives homeowners the ability to choose exactly the right size for their needs. 

    Does your refrigerator model meet the ENERGY STAR standards? Click here to find out more about ENERGY STAR labeled refrigerators.
  2. ENERGY STAR labeled Ceiling Fans (0.5 point):  Projects that install at least one fan in each bedroom and living room earn half a point toward LEED for Homes certification.  Sunset Green Home will be using Big Ass Haiku fans throughout the home, in each bedroom, and in the living spaces. Equally important is Sunset Green Home’s use of two Big Ass Haiku fans in the pool house, which isn’t air-conditioned. In that space, the fans provide the only source of thermal comfort.  Big Ass Haiku is the most energy efficient of all ceiling fans and is available with SenseME technology, which learns a user’s habits and adjusts itself accordingly.
  3. ENERGY STAR labeled Dishwasher (0.5 point):  ENERGY STAR labeled dishwashers are a minimum of 41% more efficient in terms of water use than federal government standard machines and 15% better in overall energy consumption. Sunset Green Home is using ENERGY STAR labeled dishwasher models from Thermador and Bosch.  
  4. ENERGY STAR labeled Clothes Washer (0.5 points):  LEED for Homes awards half a point to projects that install an ENERGY STAR labeled clothes washer. An ENERGY STAR labeled clothes washer uses 18-25 gallons of water per load as opposed to 40 gallons for a standard issue model.  Sunset Green Home is using Samsung’s high efficiency laundry machines, including the model WF9100 5.6 cubic foot front load washer, which earned an ENERGY STAR Most Efficient 2014 designation.  Washing machine energy use is measured using a “Modified Energy Factor” (MEF) – and the higher the better!  Sunset Green Home’s Samsung laundry machine boasts an EMF of 3.1.  By comparison, laundry machines can be ENERGY STAR certified with MEF greater than or equal to 1.72.

Water-Efficient Clothes Washer (1 point):

A LEED for Homes project may earn a third point by installing a water-efficient clothes washer.  Projects that earn credit in the high-efficiency appliances category can earn credit for the same laundry machine in the Water-Efficient Clothes Washer category as well.  Sunset Green Home’s Samsung washing machine has an Integrated Water Factor (WF) of 2.7, a measure of the number of gallons of water per cubic foot of capacity.  To earn the point, a project must install a clothes washer with the WF below 5.5.

Click here for more info on ENERGY STAR certification for clothes washers.

Sunset Green Home is earning the maximum available points toward LEED certification for our choice of energy efficient appliances.  When you're in the market for a new major appliance, consider following the LEED for Homes program guidance by upgrading to ENERGY STAR labeled appliances to minimize your appliance energy consumption.

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Progress Update: Pool House Nearing Completion

It's baseball season, so a baseball analogy seems fitting.  We seem to have rounded third and are heading for home.  And while it has been great to see all of the advanced technologies and sustainable products that comprise the Sunset Green Home's "infrastructure," watching the finishes come together makes us feel like the house is really almost done.

Sunset Green Home's Pool House with Beacon Wall Mount Light from Teka Illumination

Sunset Green Home's Pool House with Beacon Wall Mount Light from Teka Illumination

From where I'm sitting in the nearly finished pool house, I can see four different light fixtures from Tech Lighting.  They're all energy efficiency LED fixtures that emit really beautiful light.  The Admiral Simple Wall Sconce is drop dead gorgeous and is an elegant interpretation of a nautical bulkhead light - perfect for a coastal home.  Tech Lighting's Envison LED spotlights blend into the ceiling on which they're mounted - which is exactly what we wanted.  The ceiling is sloped and we were looking for a way to light up the wet bar without using low hanging pendant fixtures. 

We have also had the chance to try out the features of our new ENERGY STAR qualified Big Ass Haiku fan.  The pool house is not air conditioned.  But the Haiku, with its SenseME technology, still managed to keep us cool.

And the exterior is illuminated by Teka Illumination's Beacon Wall Mount LED fixture, which looks great now and will develop a beautiful patina over time.

We were looking to keep the walls fresh and simple - so we painted everything in the pool house with Sherwin-Williams Snowbound (SW-7004), a cool white that we've had a chance to see in sunny and rainy weather...and it looks great regardless of the light conditions.  But, more importantly, we chose to use Sherwin-Williams Harmony paint, a formulation with no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) - which helps us maintain healthy indoor air quality.

The floors are tiled with a stone-look porcelain tile from Daltile (City View Seaside Boardwalk).  We love that on hot days the tile will still feel cool underfoot...and its strength and durability means we don't have to worry about sandy feet damaging the floors. 

We have also begun to use our water-saving bathroom fixtures, which so far seem to be delivering great performance with lower environmental impact.  The pool house has the only working bathroom right now, so we've had a chance to put the Duravit dual flush DuraStyle toilet to work.  We like the dual flush feature for its water-saving properties.  With an average water use of less than 1.1 gallons per flush, we are earning the maximum possible LEED points with this attractive modern fixture.  And we are equally happy with the Duravit Vero sanitary ceramic vanity top, which looks great and is extremely easy to clean.  The Hansgrohe hand held and regular shower heads, with water saving flow rates of 2.0 gallons per minute, look great and work well too. 

So what remains to be done in the pool house before we can declare victory?  A comfy sofa and chairs from Kravet have been ordered, as have solar shades, wood blinds and decorative window treatments from The Shade Store.  A unique etched glass shower surround by Cardinal Shower Enclosures will be delivered next week and will provide privacy in what we envision as a bath that will have more of a "locker room" feeling (cubbies and changing area, separate WC, Samsung stackable laundry machines, etc.).  We're still waiting for cabinetry to be installed - the pool house wet bar will feature sustainable Shinnoki wood veneer cabinets and counter tops in Caesarstone's Raw Concrete, a new color that was launched this year.  But while we wait for the cabinets to arrive (before July 1st, we're told), we've already plugged in and have started to use our compact ENERGY STAR qualified 24" Bosch refrigerator

We're just a couple of weeks away from completing the pool house.  Check back for more photos of the finished look!

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